Tackling Africa’s Agricultural Sector at the Root

Published on 17th July 2018

Formed through the merger of Novartis Agribusiness and Zeneca Agrochemicals in 2000, Syngenta is a leading global agricultural company committed to transforming food security and empowering small-scale farmers worldwide. Essential Business magazine spoke to Peter Veal, Africa and Middle East Marketing and Commercial Operations Head and Kinyua MMbijjewe, Head of Corporate Affairs East and Southern Africa.

Syngenta has used its influence to affect change in more ways than one. Its professed ambition is to support the inclusion of African farmers, regardless of their farms’ size, into viable value chains so that they produce more of what local and global markets want. They want to transform farmer yields at scale and increase their profitability in a way that creates sustainable value.

Its focus may be on crop protection and seeds, but since deciding to invest in Africa and the Middle East over 50 years ago, Syngenta has used its influence to affect change in more ways than one.

Its professed ambition is to support the inclusion of African farmers, regardless of their farms’ size, into viable value chains so that they produce more of what local and global markets want. They want to transform farmer yields at scale and increase their profitability in a way that creates sustainable value.

To do this, Syngenta has developed a unique business model, allowing participation in Africa’s agricultural sector on a game-changing level with an integrated, collaborative approach that sets it apart within the sector.

“You have to be willing to invest ahead of the curve,” says Peter Veal. “Some of our competitors have followed elements of our model, but no one looks at that holistic approach like we do.”

Grassroots agriculture

Africa’s rapid population growth, predicted to double to 2.4 billion by 2050, is putting increased pressure on the continent’s agricultural sector and the need for food production. Those employed in the field represent up to 70% of the African population, most of whom work in smallscale farming. For Syngenta, this represents an enormous opportunity for growth.

“The opportunity and the challenge is to help these farmers be more productive, be linked to markets and be able to feed not only their communities but create wealth,” says Kinyua MMbijjewe.

Syngenta addresses this issue at a grassroots level, running programs to empower smallholder farmers. “A lot of companies are willing to sell smallholder farms their products without training them in how to use them,” says Peter Veal. “What then happens is that they don’t get the returns and they’re stuck in that poverty cycle even more.”

In 2014, the company launched The Good Growth Plan, to improve the sustainability of agriculture and its business globally, through six commitments to be achieved by 2020. One of its commitments is to train 20 million smallholder farmers in Africa until 2020. By 2018, they have already reached almost 14 million globally, well on track to achieve the target.

Engaging the next generation

But the dream of Africa feeding itself while also contributing to global food security isn’t going to happen without ensuring the future of the industry.

“We’re very conscious that we need to attract young people,” confides MMbijjewe. “If the youth aren’t interested in agriculture because they see it as drudgery or backbreaking hours in the hot sun with little return, there’s no incentive.”

To combat this issue, Syngenta runs programmes and competitions across East and Southern Africa to encourage youth engagement in the sector and allow them to see agriculture as not just labour, but business.

“We’ve found that in our Mavuno Zaidi programme, 50% of 30,000 participants are young people because they see money in it,” says MMbijjewe. “Where you find the yield is low or the crop is uncertain, then you find that the young people are not interested.”

In the past, Syngenta also run competitions designed to challenge young people to come up with innovative ideas for investable business startups, taking them through a boot camp and exposing them to potential investors. According to MMbijjewe, all participants benefit in one way or another: “Some of them have been taken up, but all of them have learnt to look at agriculture as a business.”

Partnering for progress

But Syngenta is aware that agricultural development in Africa will not happen if they work alone. It’s openly and enthusiastically collaborative, working with farmers groups, NGOs, governments and players across the agriculture value chain to develop the sector, allowing its business to thrive alongside the general agricultural sector.

“To support and empower farmers, our Business Development team on the ground invests in innovative and holistic business models which address barriers within the African agriculture today”, shares Peter Veal. “These include access to finance and market access, two key accelerators for sustainable profitable farming. We cannot do this alone and to implement at scale requires partnerships with like-minded organizations who bring their own complementary contribution. The right private sector partnerships which focus on execution at scale will begin to revolutionize smallholder agriculture and with it rural communities.”

One such partnership is the Farm to Market Alliance (FTMA), a consortium of eight public and private organisations, including Syngenta, brought together by The World Food Program. The FTMA takes a demand-led approach creating a market for crops and supporting farmers to meet that demand through a series of interventions including access to financing, inputs, storage and market information.

Syngenta also works with organisations like Techno Serve, a key player brining solutions to poverty in Africa. Joint efforts like Mavuno Zaidi aim to address several challenges faced by potato and tomato farmers in Kenya. “When you think about the number of people and the distance we’re talking about, being able to reach smallholder farmers and teach them good agronomic practice requires a collaborative effort,” says MMbijjewe.

In May 2013, Syngenta also signed its first global Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with USAID, which was renewed last October. The intention is, through the donations of USAID, to boost agricultural productivity and uplift the wellbeing of smallholder farmers. No grants are given directly to Syngenta, but rather to various NGOs who the company then work with.

“I think the old paradigm of development is unsustainable, nor can businesses do it alone,” says MMbijjewe. “We cannot be a master of all trades, you really need to work with those that are experts in others. Partnerships are the path to progress. We’ve got to work together to make it happen.”

Policy for the future

This collaborative approach isn’t restricted to funding and training. Africa needs viable markets and infrastructures to allow farmers to trade. Syngenta works with governmental bodies as members of the Farm to Market Alliance, an eight-company partnership operating in East and Southern Africa and facilitated by the World Food Program, as well as the Brussels-based group Private Investors for Africa.

“Policy is a big issue and a major bottleneck on Africa,” says Peter Veal. “We need these internal trade and common market agreements to thrive.”

One of the biggest issues, he says, is facilitating border crossings and making them more efficient. As agricultural produce is generally perishable, the delays caused by excessive bureaucracy can be disastrous for farmers.

“We’ve found it’s better to engage the governments as a group of likeminded private sector companies rather than as Syngenta,” he elaborates. “When you approach governments as a single company it can look like you’re trying to achieve something that’s only beneficial to you. We try to engage with partnerships where there’s more voices so they can deliver more.”

Syngenta has also contributed to a technical manual developed by USAID to confront the pressing issue of fall armyworms spreading across the continent.

“We’ve contributed technically to this issue and have had discussions as recently as yesterday as to how we can go beyond a surveillance of this pest towards entering into programs and large-scale campaigns to control it,” says MMbijjewe. “There’s no silver bullet in agriculture. Nature is dynamic, and you must approach it as such.”

Courtesy: Essential Business Magazine

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